Commentary

Most dangerous 2 minutes in sports

Is a 20-horse Kentucky Derby an accident waiting to happen?

Updated: April 29, 2014, 6:21 PM ET
By Steve Davidowitz | Special to ESPN.com

Once upon a time the legendary sports writer Grantland Rice labeled the Kentucky Derby as the "fastest two minutes in sports." Some year later, it was renamed by less accomplished writers as "the greatest two minutes in sports," a hyperbolic moniker that has stuck with this historic 1 ¼-mile horse race.

For sheer drama and national attention, the Derby deserves both labels. It is both the fastest and the greatest two minutes on the American sports calendar.

Yet it would not take a stretch of anyone's imagination if someone really looked at what goes on in the Derby each year when 19 or 20 horses line up to compete. If reality were in play, it easily could be called "the luckiest two minutes in sports," because quite simply, it also is the most dangerous.

I pray to myself every time they open the Derby starting gate that no horse is going to be knocked so badly off stride that he causes a chain reaction of carnage similar to what we sometimes see during the first quarter-mile of the Indianapolis 500.

The Kentucky Derby is the luckiest, because nothing really bad has happened to any horse or jockey as a direct cause of sending 20 horses out of a starting gate in the hectic race for position heading to the clubhouse turn. You will see the dangers for yourself this Saturday as so many horses bump into each other or cross over in front of each other during the first 30-something seconds of the world's most famous race.

In my judgment, having so many horses on the Churchill Downs racing surface competing for position is an accident waiting to happen.

I pray to myself every time they open the Derby starting gate that no horse is going to be knocked so badly off stride that he causes a chain reaction of carnage similar to what we sometimes see during the first quarter-mile of the Indianapolis 500.

Lord knows, Churchill Downs and all the people who love horse racing do not want to see anything close to something like that. The negative consequences from such a disaster would be the toughest body blow Churchill Downs and the racing industry ever has suffered. The consequences would be more profound than any of the recent attacks to a sport desperately needing to fix its drug problems and other nagging issues.

If this accident waiting to happen does happen, there will be cries from state and national politicians, from animal protection organizations and from large numbers of American citizens calling for the sport's termination.

Beyond just thinking that danger is in the air when so many horses are in the starting gate, there have been a few close calls that have played no apparent role in Churchill's persistence to allow so many horses to run in its showcase race.

This, in spite of the fact only 14 horses can fit in the Churchill Downs starting gate when the 1 ¼-mile Breeders' Cup Classic is run on that track. Or that 14 is the maximum allowed for any race at any distance at Churchill, other than the Kentucky Derby.

To explain their thinking, a Churchill official told me, without wanting his name associated with his remarks, that he sees "no extra danger for a field of 20 going in the Derby than if there were only five horses allowed in that gate." To which I have to say, it is no wonder why this CD official did not want his name linked to such a patently absurd comment.

Close calls?

We are talking about a horse race involving finely tuned, high-strung Thoroughbreds whose speed averages about 40 mph in the run to the first turn and about 36 mph thereafter. While it is simple fact that an accident can happen anywhere on any track, it seems beyond reason that Churchill Downs is inviting considerable added risk here. The Kentucky Derby hardly is a 1 ¼-mile walk around Central Park.

In 1987 for example, Alysheba nearly went to his nose when he clipped heels with Bet Twice approaching the final furlong. Fortunately, Alysheba showed amazing athleticism under the quick reactions of his Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron. The colt recovered quickly before another horse could run into him and remarkably, he caught and passed Bet Twice to win the 113th Derby.

In 2010, Lookin At Lucky was bumped badly leaving the inside post, almost crashed into the inside rail and lost all chance to win, finishing sixth as a prelude to his victory in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. If you watch that race on YouTube, or in the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill, you will see just how close the proverbial accident waiting to happen really was.

Trainer Bob Baffert said two very important things after that race that deserved more consideration than they received.

"Twenty horses in one race on that track, any track, probably is a few too many," he said. "It doesn't help make for a fair or truly run race. And breaking from Post 1 in such a large field puts a horse in direct line with the inside rail as it curves towards the stretch. That's dangerous."

Some horseplayers and horse trainers say they do not fear drawing Post 1, because they believe if the horse is best in the Derby he will overcome the problems. I wish them luck with that.

Here is what happened to the 20 different Derby horses since the early 1970s that broke from the inside post when the field size was 19 or more:

1971: Bold and Able, the favorite -- hard used early -- faded to eighth.
1974: Agitate, the race favorite was bothered badly at the break.
1981: Splendid Spruce was buried along the inside throughout.
1982: Cupecoy's Joy, hard used to get in the clear, faded to 10th.
1983: Slew o' Gold, a future champ; bothered at break, was fourth.
1984: Althea, rushed from the gate to avoid trouble, finished last.
1992: AL Sabin bore out early to avoid the rail; finished sixth.
1993: Storm Tower, asked for early speed; faded to 16th.
1995: Dazzling Falls, bumped hard early; finished 17th.
1996: Blow Out, shuffled back to last early; finished seventh.
1999: Adonis, bumped hard at the start, finished 17th.
2005: Sort It Out, sluggish throughout, finishing 17th.
2006: Jazil swerved badly at start; was fourth; then won Belmont.
2007: Sedgefield ran a flat race throughout when fifth.
2008: Cool Coal Man had little room inside and faded to 15th.
2009: West Side Bernie, in heavy traffic inside; faded to 15th.
2010: Lookin At Lucky had the worst trip in 30 years.
2011: Archarcharch, bothered early; saddle slipped, went lame.
2012: Daddy Long Legs, stuck inside; went lame on backstretch.
2013: Oxbow, bumped hard; raced hard when sixth; won Preakness.

The only horse that overcame the dreaded rail post position regardless of field size in the past 50 years was Ferdinand, who scored an amazing upset in 1986 under 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker. As stated in a previous column, that was the greatest ride I have ever seen. But even in this case, Ferdinand was badly bumped at the start and actually hit the rail during that dangerous run to the first turn.

Beyond our annual desire to cash a winning ticket, let's hope and/or pray for two things on Saturday: That the accident waiting to happen does not occur and that Churchill Downs will limit the 2015 Derby to a more manageable 14-16 starters.

If they take their responsibility to safety seriously, a 14-16 horse field also would allow them to place the No. 1 post a bit wider away from its presently dangerous spot that directly faces the curving inside rail.

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